As the third-year head coach of a beleaguered franchise coming off a disappointing season, Ron Rivera is in a rush. The man in charge of reshaping the Washington Commanders has no patience for gradual turnarounds — and he knows that if his team can fight its way back to relevance in 2022, the pass rush must lead the way.
In Rivera’s first year in the nation’s capital, a formidable front four — with NFL defensive rookie of the year Chase Young, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, as its headliner — keyed a stirring late-season run that resulted in an unlikely NFC East title. In 2021, however, Washington’s defensive line was a hot mess. From Young and fellow edge rusher Montez Sweat’s lack of productivity to a harrowing locker-room brawl between defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, it was a season to forget for the team’s most important position group.
Rivera expects a significant bounce back, especially from Young, who’s still recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in a Week 10 upset of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Yet after watching his talented but keyed-up linemen lose containment against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in a preseason game last weekend, Rivera sounded a lot like he did throughout last year’s challenging campaign.
“The biggest thing I want right now is a disciplined pass rush,” Rivera told Bally Sports. “You look at what happened Saturday — we got a lot of pressure on Patrick, but we didn’t stay in our lanes. He kept plays alive and got away from the pressure and completed passes. We have guys that can rush, but they have to understand what their limitations are and what their strengths are, and play to those strengths, rather than to their weaknesses. If they’re defiant about certain things, they’ll put themselves into positions where their weaknesses get exploited.”
This has been a recurring theme for Rivera since early last season, when he shared his belief that edge rushers Young and Sweat (a first-round pick in 2019) were overextending in an effort to make big plays, rather than adhering to their assignments and letting sacks come to them. And lack of discipline became a national storyline last Dec. 26 when all hell broke loose on the Washington sideline during a 56-14 beatdown by the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. Defensive tackles Allen and Payne — former Alabama teammates and fellow first-round draft picks — got into a bench-area scrap, with Payne jabbing a finger in Allen’s face and Allen throwing a punch in response.
That incident, captured by NBC cameras, was bad enough. At halftime, things got uglier. According to several witnesses, Allen and Payne resumed their fight after returning to the locker room. Punches were thrown, blood was spilled and, sources said, Allen suffered a grisly gash to his ear that required numerous stitches at game’s end.
Afterward, the two men did their best to downplay the drama, with Payne asking reporters, “You got brothers? You all fight, don’t you?” And Rivera, in retrospect, believes it’s important to consider the context. After winning four consecutive games to put itself, against all odds, back into the playoff hunt, Washington suffered a slew of COVID-19-related absences that deep-sixed the dream. Then, three days before the game against the Cowboys that would officially eliminate them, the Commanders were rocked by a car accident that killed Olivia Peters, the girlfriend of safety Deshazor Everett, who would later plead guilty to misdemeanor reckless driving and is no longer on the team.
“It’s just guys that were frustrated — that’s old news, though,” Rivera said of the incident involving Payne and Allen. “People that were around understand what we went through. These guys are prideful guys. They want to win. And then the frustration of it all … having 27 players out, and eight coaches … we had a chance to beat Philadelphia with a quarterback (Garrett Gilbert) we plucked off someone’s practice squad three days before. Then you go to Dallas two days after one of your favorite teammates gets into a car accident that kills his girlfriend. As I said at the time, this is real-life s---.”
Not surprisingly, Rivera is looking to restore order in 2022. Earlier this month, he fired defensive line coach Sam Mills Jr. and promoted Mills’ assistant, Jeff Zgonina, to fill the role. Zgonina, who had a 17-year career as an NFL defensive tackle, is a disciple of legendary defensive line coach (and current Broncos defense/special projects assistant) Bill Kollar, whose no-nonsense approach helped the St. Louis Rams reach Super Bowl XXXVI.
“I was looking for a different energy, just a different vibe more than anything else,” Rivera said. “Sam was a little more stoic, a veteran type of coach, who was used to working with a veteran group of guys, like we had in Carolina. Now we have a different personality who’s gonna be a bit more of a taskmaster, instead of someone who wasn’t as demonstrative.”
So far, Zgonina’s defensive-line room is full of promise. Allen and Payne, who went several weeks without speaking following their fight, have since made up and are back on good terms. Allen, coming off a Pro Bowl season, has embraced a leadership role. Payne, heading into the final year of his rookie deal, has tens of millions of reasons to shine in 2022.
“We didn’t get an extension done, but nothing’s decided yet as far as the future,” Rivera said. “He’s handled it like a pro and been everything you would hope. We’re gonna wait and see what happens.”
That brings us back to Young, who’ll start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, meaning he’ll miss at least the first four games. After a monster rookie season that included 7 1/2 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, four passes defended, four forced fumbles and three fumbles recovered, Young struggled in 2021, recording only 1 1/2 sacks before getting injured.
“The one thing about Chase is he came into last year with an idea that, ‘I can change the way I do things,’” Rivera said. “He’s a big, physical, strong guy. But he tried to do some different things — more stutters, and some other different moves — and he got stymied. My view is, ‘Let’s get back to your strengths. You’re a physical player. You can overwhelm people. Go back to that.’ I believe he will, and that he’ll be much, much better this year.”
If that happens, the Commanders may be able to create the kind of conspicuous havoc that creates positive attention. If nothing else, it’s a situation worth watching.
Here are some others that pique our interest as the 2022 season approaches.